Detective Hiroshi Shimizu has to watch his step. If he keeps his nose clean and the paperwork in order, he can escape the monotony of his broom-cupboard of an office in the bowels of Tokyo police HQ for the bright lights of Interpol.
But that would mean turning his back on his Japanese side, not to mention his ex-sumo wrestling sidekick and office lady girl Friday. Throw in the murder of a leading American diplomat (with an alluring half-Japanese daughter damsel-in-distress), a backdrop of Japanese opposition to nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima and Japanese ex-girlfriends still tugging at our hero’s broken heart and what do you have?
A mess, in less capable hands. But we’re talking about the second novel by Michael Pronko, long time Tokyo resident, Japan commentator, jazz fiend and all-round smart-cookie. Pronko masterfully keeps everything in proportion, right to the end. That I wanted to see him cut loose completely from genre conventions was selfish of me, or maybe something Pronko is keeping up his sleeve for the third installment in the Detective Hiroshi files. On the other hand, perhaps The Moving Blade was radical beneath its conventional coat.
After all, in the first book in the series Pronko lifted a rock from Japanese society and looked underneath to see what was squirming about. In this second, he stood on that rock to appraise dangers on the horizon. And what he found was American global power. Or, more specifically, the military bases that sit out of reach of the not-so-long arm of Japanese law. Did Pronko really go there? It felt like a dangerous step to take. To be fair, this is the chosen problem for all thriller writers — finding a villain we can hate and a hero we can love (that, and negating the ever-present smartphones which mean all characters can know all things at all times). Sure, there was the obligatory spunky American victim whom English speaking readers could sympathise with, and the conspiracy afoot was suitably self-serving and ignorant befitting the Trumpian times we find ourselves in. A liberal-minded, cosmopolitan detective who found his way around the bookstores of Kanda-Jimbocho certainly got my backing. But I wonder how readers will respond to the heroism Hiroshi sees in the act of speaking truth to power, the truth of the pen being mightier than the sword. Seems folk these days don’t have the stomach for that kind of truth, especially if it is of the grey, multi-edged variety that Pronko knows well.
Pronko handled the promised ultimate clash of the good and bad guys in an understated way, leaving our hero with a clearer appreciation of the knife edge he, and Japan, must wield carefully to thrive. An intelligent, topical thriller, accessible to the newbie getting to grips with Japan, but balanced for the long-time Japan-hand too.
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Patrick Sherriff publishes a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. He lives in Abiko with his wife and two daughters.